Ask Chef Phyllis:
Pain d’Epices from France
Have you ever heard of pain d’epices? French for “spice bread,” it’s literally a kind of spiced sweet bread (with cinnamon, ginger, and anise seed), but Europeans think of it as a cake. Compared to the old familiar fruit cake, this version, although sweet, is far less complicated and has much lighter ingredients. No glazed fruits or nuts, and no red and green candied cherries or pineapple either. It may have had orange flavoring or zest, but we are not sure.
At one time in my mother’s youth (she came from Brittany), every family made this bread for Christmas, and she said that every patisserie in Paris carried some version of it. I have an old recipe, but I tried it twice and failed twice. The inside was raw, the edges were burned, and I couldn’t get it out of the pan. I wondered if you could find a good recipe for me.
—Mary Cunningham from Whitman, MA
Indeed, there are numerous references to a spiced holiday bread called pain d’epices online, along with various stories of successful and not so successful attempts to duplicate different family’s recipes. And as you mentioned, some of these recipes are loaded with dates, figs, and dried fruits and nuts, similar to our idea of conventional fruit cake.
However, our tastes for fruit cake have changed so much in the last century that I think this lighter bread would be a big hit today! Before I researched your request, I’d never heard of pain d’epices—even though I’ve been baking for more than forty years. But now that I know how many diverse, truly regional recipes exist, I think it’s wonderful that families are duplicating their own traditional favorites. This could easily become one of mine. It’s so easy to make—and what a find!
—I adapted this1910 recipe, which uses honey and orange marmalade, from Cook’s Country’s “Lost Bread” collection. The original recipe calls for 2 cups honey, but I replaced 1¼ cups of the honey with coconut sugar.
3 or more tablespoons softened butter (for greasing the pans)
2 cups whole milk
½ cup orange marmalade (I used homemade orange marmalade loaded with peel)
½ cup honey
3½ cups flour (I used King Arthur’s white whole-wheat flour, sifted 3 times)
½ cup very finely ground almonds (I used a food processor) or almond flour
1½ cups coconut sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon anise seeds, ground, or ½ teaspoon ground star anise
Special equipment: 2 (8×4-inch) glass loaf pans
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. (If using metal pans, preheat to 325°F.)
2. Generously butter pans. You may line them with parchment paper to ensure the breads won’t stick, but if you do, make sure to butter the parchment paper.
3. In a medium saucepan, combine milk, marmalade, and honey. Stirring often, bring to a gentle simmer, until the marmalade melts. Remove from heat and cool.
4. Whisk together flours, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and spices in a large bowl. Gently fold the milk mixture into the flour mixture until just combined.
5. Spoon or scrape batter into prepared pans (it will be somewhat sticky). Bake until golden brown, about 1 hour. Test by inserting a toothpick into the center of the loaf. It should come out clean.
6. Cool the loaves for 15 minutes before removing from pans to cool completely on a wire rack.
7. Serve with additional orange marmalade or your favorite jam.
Image from iStock/nightman1965.